ad info
    Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback  




Mir cargo vessel abandoned

John Zarrella: Lessons learned from Challenger

Last rendezvous for Mir

Beginning of the end for Mir



Bush signs order opening 'faith-based' charity office for business

Rescues continue 4 days after devastating India earthquake

DaimlerChrysler employees join rapidly swelling ranks of laid-off U.S. workers

Disney's is a goner


4:30pm ET, 4/16











CNN Websites
Networks image

Outer space gas trapped on Earth in 'buckyballs'

Bucky Ball
This image shows how extraterrestrial gases such as helium can be trapped inside the fullerene cage. One view shows a broken bond, or open "window," with an atom moving out through window.  

March 22, 2000
Web posted at: 10:41 a.m. EST (1541 GMT)

In this story:

Space helium encased for eons

The Permian/Triassic divide

What's a 'buckyball?'


HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- Extraterrestrial gases have been trapped on Earth for millions of years by complex molecular structures known as buckyballs, scientists reported this week.

The discovery offers a new method to trace geological and biological events linked to colossal meteorite and comet strikes and strengthens the theory that some terrestrial atmospheric gases and organic compounds originated in space.

"This finding opens new possibilities in looking at the problem of how planetary atmospheres evolved and maybe even how life evolved on Earth and perhaps other moons and planets," University of Hawaii geochemist Luann Becker said in a statement.

Becker and two colleagues found the trapped extraterrestrial gases in samples from Denmark, New Zealand and North America taken from a one-inch (2.5-cm) layer of sedimentary clay that divides the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods.

The clay layer formed about 65 million years ago from the fallout of a massive impact crater that many scientists think set off mass extinctions, including that of the dinosaurs.

The gases and their unusual containers originated in space, the scientists said in the March 28 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An advanced version was posted on the Internet on Tuesday.

Space helium encased for eons

The trapped gases contain high concentrations of helium 3, a type of helium with only three subatomic particles that's found mostly in space. Helium found on Earth, in contrast, usually has four sub-atomic particles in its nucleus.

Presumably the buckyballs -- microscopic cages composed of carbon atoms -- came from space as well, considering their helium cargo did. But scientists remain unsure when and where they formed.

Formally known as fullerenes, buckeyballs form under dense pressures and extreme temperatures like those in the pre-solar environment, Becker said. Physicist Robert Poreda of the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, agrees that fullerenes predate our solar system. He adds that they could have come from a star that predates our sun.

"They may have formed in a high energy plasma related to the early solar nebula or they may have formed prior to the formation of our solar system in the outflow from a 'carbon-rich' giant. Our solar nebula then formed from the remnants of this giant star," he said.

Becker published her findings along with Poreda and Ted Bunch of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett, California.

Becker and Bunch first identified naturally occurring fullerenes in a meteorite last July. They detected large buckyballs, some composed of 400 carbon atoms, in pieces of the 4.6-billion-year-old Allende meteorite that landed in Mexico decades ago.

Samples from Australia's Murchison meteorite offered additional evidence of the extraterrestrial origin of fullerene helium cages.

The Permian/Triassic divide

Becker has expanded the research to include the sedimentary layer that divides the 250-million-year old Permian and Triassic periods. The layer marks a time of much greater biological change than the Cretaceous/Tertiary transition.

The investigation could help explain whether a killer comet or meteor spurred the massive species shakeup. Becker also seeks to find out if fullerenes delivered carbon compounds and other substances necessary for life to emerge.

"We're working on that right now. There's more to come hopefully," she said.

What's a 'buckyball?'

Named for Buckminster Fuller, designer of the geodesic dome, fullerenes have been the subject of intense study since their discovery in 1985.

A third form of pure carbon after diamonds and graphite, so-called buckyballs are composed of carbon atoms that have bonded together into hollow, geodesic "cages."

They possess unusual properties that researchers hope to exploit in everything from superconductors to superlubricants to microscopic "nanotubes."

Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley, who first produced fullerenes in the laboratory, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work. Since then scientists have discovered naturally existing fullerenes.

'Nomad' combs no-man's-land for meteors
January 24, 2000
Chemical that could power microbes is found at Jupiter moon
October 1, 1999
Looking for life in all the weird places
April 1, 1999
Researchers plumb cave to unlock mystery of Mars
February 12, 1999
Leonid meteor shower expected to peak overnight Wednesday
November 17, 1999

Astrobiology at NASA
NASA Homepage

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Back to the top   © 2000 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.